Recently Moira sent me something that she knew would intrigue me. It is a picture of a piece of pottery that was broken and then repaired with gold or silver laquer. It is an art called Kintsukuroi . When a piece of pottery is broken, what is our first impulse? To throw it out of course! To us it’s a useless piece of hard clay now, no longer good for its intended use. But this art is about taking something broken and making it repairing it ‘understanding that is more beautiful for being broken’.
Volunteering with OIM has introduced me to many new experiences, some sad, but most of them great! One defies categorization, however. That is, the desire to NOT see a dear friend. I mean, this is something that lots of people experience fairly regularly, if you’re having a fight with a spouse, or feeling guilty about what you said to a friend, you may try to avoid them, or hope not to see them for a few days, or something.
But say everything is going really well in a relationship – usually you want to see that person! And look forward to it! But some days, especially REALLY COLD days (of which we’ve been having a fair number recently) I find myself thinking: “Oh, I hope I don’t see Bob tonight.” Not because I don’t like Bob, but precisely because I do! But I want Bob to be someplace warm and safe, not out on the street. Sometimes, as an Outreach team, we find ourselves praying together before going out: “Dear Lord, I hope we don’t see any of our street friends tonight. I hope our sandwiches go completely wasted. I hope we’re the only ones with cold toes tonight. Amen.”
This is a small thing, but one more example of how poverty twists relationships: we shouldn’t be in situations where we find ourselves praying that we DON’T get the chance to spend time with someone we love.
…for some of our street friends at least: from December 20 or 23 to the end of January. It’s the longest time of the year to make your BIG $531 welfare cheque last – PLUS whatever you might spend at Christmas. Right at this time of the year and this day of the month it is most difficult. You could almost taste the stress and anxiety at the drop in today. Tempers flared several times, and one of our guests refused to leave when asked.
I hate when that happens. There is so much ‘stuff’ happening in our friends’ lives that they certainly do not need any additional woes: they are cold, wearing soaking wet running shoes, inadequate clothing for the weather, they have no one to talk to really, and no one to care for them. They have no-where to go. They really are just trying to manage themselves to get through another day. No money. Some have on-going health issues. No home, for many.
Then there is a flair up with someone across the table – an altercation – with someone who is also experiencing all of those same troubles and with a short temper, and both parties get to take the ‘day off’. ‘Day off’ means you can’t stay here today: I have to send you out into the cold, the wet, the loneliness and the cold concrete jungle of the city. What? Won’t go? Well if not, we have no choice but to call the police to escort you out – just for today sure, but that doesn’t mean much when ‘today’ is all you really have.
I know it has to be done – keeping peace within the drop in, showing respect for others, respect for what we’re doing, and on and on and on … I know.
It still sucks.
Molly’s worker called the office late yesterday afternoon. Molly is one of our many individuals living in Ottawa that struggle to survive off a meager disability cheque as she is in no position to work due to her mental health issues. Once her rent and utilities are paid, she makes do with less than $200 for the month….for clothing, food, transportation, entertainment, everything!! Imagine…not even $200 in your pocket to live off of for the next 30 days!
Molly has been wearing the same winter jacket for the past ten years. She liked it will enough. It was a wool blend and warm but alas, even wool blend jackets wear out eventually. And now her worker is looking for an organization to donate a coat so that Molly can stay warm over the winter.
God is so good! Just this week, a thoughtful donor had brought in a beautiful, down filled, almost new, mid-length woman’s jacket in you guessed it….Molly’s exact size! To the donor of the jacket, Molly wants you to know how thankful she is.
Often times when people hear that I work with the homeless, they like to engage in a conversation about whether or not our society should be responsible for taking care of the homeless. This conversation is generally very predictable…
People talk about the waste of money that goes into social programs. Some complain about supporting people on welfare. Others say that it is up to the individual to pick themselves up by their bootstraps to get off the streets.
I try my best to share my insight but the truth is, most adults have already made up their minds about the homeless.
Last year, I was asked to speak to a Grade Three class. I was nervous because I wanted to be honest about homelessness but I didn’t want to scare the kids. I tried my best to answer the kids questions without traumatizing them. At the end of my talk I asked the class “Why should we help the homeless? Why shouldn’t we just focus on ourselves and not people we see on the streets?” Immediately a little girl raised her hand and confidently stated “Because it’s the kind thing to do.” As she said this, her peers nodded in agreement.
This third grader got it right.
I’m so proud of Tammi! She has had a long time addiction to crack cocaine…somewhere around fifteen years I think. Like many of the users we see, she has tried over and over again to break the addiction. It’s an addiction folks! Don’t kid yourselves….it can be very hard to stop an addiction!! As much as we would like to say that our friends we serve just make the decision to quit and then stop, never to return to the vice again, that is not really the way it is usually. Often they stop for a time, days or weeks or sometimes months but then something triggers the addiction again, it’s too strong of a lure and *poof*, back on the substance they tried so hard to stay away from. Tammi has been like that. Off the drug and back on again, off and on again, always feeling bad when she’s on, proud when she’s off, but trying, over and over again. I pray for her. I pray the day will come when she quits for good. I pray for the day that she is strong enough to not be enticed by the pull of the drug or the trigger that consumes her thoughts. But right now, I’m just proud of her. Today marks her one month anniversary of being clean….again. Way to go Tammi
Suzanne comes to the drop-in every week without fail. Her story is similar to many others: she immigrated to Canada several years ago and she continues to struggle to make ends meet. She comes to the drop-in every week to get much needed support and community. She is also attending language classes a few times each week because she is determined to improve her English. She refuses to speak French at all at the drop-in because she wants to practice her English as much as possible.
One day after lunch, Suzanne was staring across the room and she had a look on her face that was so peaceful and joyful that I had to ask her what she was looking at. She pointed at two men who were standing across the room and said “When I looked over at these men I saw Jesus standing in between them, with His hand on their shoulders. Do you think that’s crazy?” I told her I didn’t think it was crazy at all. She started smiling and said “Jesus is here. The politicians, the rich people, they don’t come here. But Jesus does. He comes to where the low places are.”
The low places….those words have really stuck with me. Often we think of God standing up on high places looking down on us. But Suzanne is right, Jesus is right there with us, even at the drop-in.
What a cold start to January! As the temperature drops I am very thankful for my warm coat, gloves and most of all, a warm place to go at the end of day. Working amongst the poor and the homeless, I have become aware of just how many don’t have this ‘privilege’. A place to call home. So many of us take it for granted. We have always had one and will likely always have one, but for many others this isn’t the case. But a home is more than a place to go at the end of the day, it’s a place of refuge…a place of safety and acceptance. A home is a place where you belong…If I had one wish for this year it would be that you always have this and that our friends who don’t would find it…
Recently I had the privilege of participating in a One Homeless Night activity with OIM staff (go Moira!) and a group of teens from The Meeting House, an Ottawa church. If you’ve never participated in One Homeless Night, it provides a good introduction to the life of our street engaged friends in Ottawa, involving a lot of useful facts and statistics, but also a whole lot of walking, introspection and prayer at key sites in the urban core. In this case it was also a good way for OIM to stock up on some needed supplies, as the teens and adult volunteers were encouraged to fundraise at work, school and church to purchase sturdy winter mitts for donation. Accordingly, several dozen thick, thermal, red mitts were added to the OIM stores.
And speaking of those mitts – our regular weekly street outreach team had two great experiences involving them. The first involved a young man, early twenties, leaning against the side of a building. When he saw our red vests he jumped onto the sidewalk. “Outreach!” he yelled. “Do you guys have any gloves?” When offered some red mitts he was delighted. We chatted a bit more and offered our usual round of food, juice boxes and snacks. “That’s ok,” he said, “you can save those for someone else. I eat plenty, I’m just really cold – these [the mitts] are great.” His mix of honesty (“I eat plenty, I’m just really cold”) and generosity (“save those for someone else”) are a defining experience of our street community.
The second experience was with a middle-aged man huddled in a nook near a downtown bus station, with a cap on the ground for holiday shoppers. I’ve seen him around before, but I don’t know his name because he appears to have a significant speech impediment – he typically communicates with a series of squeaks. I approached him to offer him a snack and he started hopping up and down on his bum, squealing a bit, and rubbing his hands together as if they were cold. I offered him the red mitts. BIG SMILE. Much contented rocking back and forth. On go the mitts. BIG SMILE. I’m not sure who ended up appreciating what they received more: he the mitts, or me the biggest smile I’ve seen in months.
As I looked around the room as lunch was in full-swing yesterday, I couldn’t help but feel very blessed to be surrounded by great 39 amazing volunteers as they bustled around the room preparing lunch, setting tables, rolling napkins, making coffee and doing many other of the critical tasks related to hosting a Thanksgiving dinner for over 200 people. Over the weekend many more hands cooked turkeys, mashed potatoes, made stuffing and boiled up delicious gravy to be served to our street friends. It all came together in a beautiful way as we served 2 sittings of turkey dinner with all the trimmings at Dominion Chalmers United Church. We were blessed with enough food that everyone had a full plate! The food received rave reviews from those present and the warm fellowship was the ‘icing on the cake’ as one of our friends put it. What could be better than good food with good friends?
Special dinners at OIM are…well…special indeed.